Books in Honour of Earth Day, 2015

Happy Earth Day. This is a day to recognize the role of the planet in our lives—a role which encompasses—well—everything. If you haven’t got a book to read for Earth Day, here are ten suggestions. This list is entirely mine, so if you’re unhappy with any of my choices, then by all means, swop out mine for yours.
And there’s no order to the order. All of these books I love and have read more than once. They’re not all children’s and young adult books, either. They are books that speak to me of the necessary human connection to the natural world. I don’t think it’s possible to live without that connection, in some form or other. May you find and celebrate your connection to our planet this day. Enjoy.
1.      Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows,
The account of the life of Rat, Mole, and their friends living along the river bank. This is an English river in an English countryside, so it has a charm that other rivers can’t manage. And I desperately wanted to live there a few times.
2.      Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
C. S. Lewis thought of this as one of his favourite books as a child. He was struck by the “idea of autumn” that he thought characterizes the book. I haven’t ever fully understood or appreciated Lewis’ point, although I still like the book. See what you can make of it.
3.      L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
The eleven-year-old Anne arrives at Green Gables and immediately falls in love with the landscape. Descriptions of Prince Edward Island in this book are detailed and lavish. And yes, PEI is that beautiful. Check it out for yourself.
4.      Gary Paulsen, Hatchet
I teach this book regularly, and I like it because Brian is stranded on a northern Ontario lake for fifty-four days. I wouldn’t want to do it, but I always find Brian’s story compelling.
5.      Farley Mowat, Lost in the Barrens
Another survival story, but I have a soft spot for this book. I read it as a twelve-year-old, and I daydreamed about being lost on the barren lands, just like Jamie and Awasin.
6.      Monica Hughes, The Keeper of the Isis Light
A science fiction set on the planet of distant Isis. Olwen, the planet’s sole occupant, apart from her robot guardian, gets to watch as colonists come to her world and despoil its beauty. Hughes lived and worked in Edmonton for many years, and I had the good fortune to meet and talk to her on several occasions.
7.      Francis Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Another English novel about English landscapes—this time a heath and a rose garden. This book is about growth and a return to life. Led by the determined Mary Lennox, almost all of the characters in the book find new life in the unfolding spring.
8.      Frank Herbert, Dune
Definitely not a kid’s book. Herbert’s book is an environmental science fiction fantasy, grounded in intrigue, philosophy, and history. Herbert’s future universe hinges on the ecology of a single desert planet.
9.      Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
The planet Gethen, or Winter, is an androgynous world. This is a book that will challenge your ideas of what constitutes the feminine and masculine, male and female, all against the backdrop of a planet of ice and snow that places infinite demands upon its inhabitants.
10.  Richard Adams, Watership Down
A book about rabbits, but not the rabbits of Beatrix Potter. Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig and the others are rabbits looking for a home. They travel across the countryside, they fight to stay alive, and they tell stories about El-ahrairah, their trickster hero, to remind themselves of who they are.

The BBC’s Eleven Best Books for Kids Ten and Under


(White, E. B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper Trophy, 1980. 36. Print.)
The BBC recently released a list of the top eleven books for children under ten. The list has some surprises. First, none of the books on the list have been published in the last forty years, which means, of course, no Harry Potter, no teenage vampires, no books about girls living in a postapocalyptic future.
Second, this list is specific in scope. It’s not a list of the best kid’s books, or the best young adult books; it’s a list of the best books for a particular age-group—kids ten and under. Its narrow range necessarily puts some restrictions on the list itself.
Here’s the list in ascending order:
11. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie,
10. Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time,
9. Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea,
8. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
7. A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh,
6. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince,
5. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women,
4. Lewis Carol, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
3. Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are,
2. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
1.      E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web.
I wasn’t surprised to see Charlotte’s Web on the list—maybe not number 1. It’s at least a book that kids still read. More than one of the books on the list are books that kids only read with the guidance of an adult or with an adult. Several people to whom I showed this list suggested it looks like a list of books parents would want their kids to read.
I tell my children’s literature students every year that the books we study at the university are often books kids don’t read anymore. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, number 3 on the BBC’s list, is one such book. Alice is a character who has entered popular culture in odd ways—an odd book by an odd man. This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Louis Carroll’s book. I don’t teach it often, and I don’t think it’s a book widely read by kids anymore.
Some children’s books, such as Alice, are approaching the status of a cultural artifact, more than being a book you will find on the average ten-year-old’s bookshelf.  Winnie-the-Pooh is another unfortunate example of such a trend. Many adults will tell you they’ve read Pooh to their kids, which they, of course, should. But the character of Pooh has been Disnified and comodified so completely that many kids wouldn’t even know that this loveable, silly bear has a book about him.
Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is another surprise on the BBC’s list. Don’t get me wrong. I love this book, and I’m rereading it at the moment. It’s just not a book that gets talked about much anymore. If you mention a school for wizards, any class of students—elementary, middle school, or university—is likely to think of Hogwarts rather than Roke Island.
And what about Lewis? Again, I love the Narnia books, but they are Christian in scope and theme. Nothing against Lewis or Christianity, but naming a Christian text as one of the best books for kids ten and under is likely to alienate a significant portion of the population. As for A Wrinkle in Time—another book I love—I would have to call it Christian-time-science-fantasy.  This book was published a year before Lewis died, but I would have loved to have heard him talk about it. I recently encountered a graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time, but I don’t think kids read it the way they read the Narnia books. As for Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, again, kids read them, which makes them more likely candidates for such a list. My youngest loved the Little House books, and I’ve met many kids who love them as well. Finally, as for Where the Wild Things are, I could see until I was ten years old, and I remember this book in the school library. I agree it’s a book deserving of being on the list, but those monsters freaked me out every time I looked at them.
Now for the books I thought should have been on this list. I have just two: L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. These are books that should be on the list, not just because I love them, but because they are books that challenge, engage, and go straight to the heart of what it means to read for the joy of it. And let’s not forget, girls read Anne. As for The Hobbit, the book gets criticized for the authorial asides that some critics suggest condescend to the child reader. Even Tolkien himself disliked these asides and took many of them out in the second edition. I never minded them; they made it a safer book to read—for me, anyway. The world of The Hobbit was such a revelation to me at age eleven that those narrative asides helped me remember that I was, in fact, in an imaginary world.
One final thing about this list. In a time of diversity, among both books and readers, this list is decidedly white. The list includes no characters of colour, save those from Le Guin’s Earthsea—Ged is copper-brown in colour, while his friend Vetch is black-skinned. However, this is less a cultural comment than it is an attempt to undercut the story of the traditional, white, European hero. What do you do with a list of books for kids that simply has nothing by way of cultural diversity, features domesticated girls, and fails to include anything about nontraditional families or differently abled kids? I’m sure these books would appear on my list, but let’s not pretend that these eleven books constitute only a fraction of what most adults want kids to know about literature and the world.

Mr. Fox and the Geese

Mr. Fox liked to walk along the edge of the old city. One spring evening, he was strolling along, and he happened upon a marshy place where a flock of geese were gathered, splashing and gabbling in the swampy water.
“What do we have here?” he said, eyeing the fat geese, as he leaned on his walking cane. “Looks like dinner.”
The geese were terrified, and they honked and cried for mercy.
“Mercy,” laughed Mr. Fox. “You will find no mercy here. I’m interested in some dinner. Now you just line yourselves up in a row, and I will wring your pretty necks one by one, and then take your carcases back to my house in the city.”
But there was one old goose who was at least as cunning as Mr. Fox. She was a grand dam of the flock, and she peered up at Mr. Fox.
“Mr. Fox,” she said, bobbing her head, “since you are going to eat us anyway, I don’t suppose you would mind if I told my children and grandchildren one more story?”
Now, if Mr. Fox had a weakness, besides a greedy desire for fresh goose, it was for a good story. “Oh, very well,” he said, petulantly. “Tell your story. But when you are done, I expect you to lineup like good little geese so I can pick out the fattest for my table.”
The old goose began her story. She gabbled and honked, telling of faraway places, of all the things she had seen on her travels, of the lives of people and animals, of strange and secret things only seen by moonlight and starlight. And before she was finished, she was joined by one of her children, and together, they gabbled and grumbled and honked of the places they had seen together. They were join by the others, one by one, until soon the whole flock was gabbling the story of their travels, from the hot countries of the South to the wide spaces of the North.
The sun slowly set, and Mr. Fox listened, forgetting about everything else as he was swept away to places he had never known.
Did Mr. Fox ever get his dinner? Who can say, for the geese are still telling their story to this day. And if you stop to listen, in the spring and the fall, you can hear it too—the gabbling of traveler’s tales upon the air.

Walking into Spring

Spring in Edmonton means many things. It means sunshine and longer days, warm afternoons as the snow slushes around your boots. It means longer evenings, actual evenings when you can go outside after six o’clock and it’s not dark. It means spring snowstorms—wet snow and sloppy sidewalks that freeze, melt, and freeze again.
Spring means the world is suddenly on the move. Canada geese sometimes fly right over my house. The song-birds return, and I can hear the piercing cry of the small hawks called merlins that live in the neighbourhood. Spring used to mean the return of the crows, but a couple of years ago the crows made up their minds to stay here through the winters—and I always thought they were smart birds.
Spring means the unclenching of winter. For me, it’s the end of the academic term, it’s my sister’s birthday, and it’s Easter, but most of all it’s about walking—walking in the afternoons and feeling the sun that has the power to make me sweat beneath my too-heavy coat, , and walking in the evenings as the sun is setting and the quiet of the evening fills the sky.
When I walk, I read. I walk and read all the time. I have a small reader that I keep in my pocket, and I plug in a portable speaker that I carry in another pocket, or sometimes tucked into the collar of the fleece I wear under my coat.
I’m lucky enough to live in a place where walking is easy. And as I walk, I read anything and everything.
The past few summers I’ve had a reading project. A couple of years ago I wanted to read all of the books in the Dune cycle, including those published by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I think I got through twelve of those books as I tramped around the neighbourhood. I wanted to read The Song of Ice and Fire series, but I only got a hundred pages in and quit. I reread as well. I’ve reread Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin; I’ve read books by Montgomery, Phillip K. Dick, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Bernard Cornwell. I’ve read The Silkworm, Oryx and Crake, The Shadow of Malabron, The Fountains of Paradise, Blood Red Road, The Road, the Magicians, and The Horseman’s Graves, all while walking—in the morning, in the evening, at night, and sometimes in the rain.
Along with many others, I was sad to learn of the death of Terry Pratchett this spring. Pratchett is another author whose gift to the world is a place to visit when this one gets too grim. His books are my next project. I’ve already read the Bromeliadtrilogy, and I’m onto the Tiffany Aching books. Who knows how far I’ll get with Pratchett, but if it isn’t Discworld, then it will be somewhere else. Enjoy the season, and enjoy whatever you are reading.